Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

Executive Intelligence and Its Relationship to Management Competence

3 minute
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These days I have been reading From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks. Brooks is the former President of the American Enterprise Institute and is currently a professor at both the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School. From Strength to Strength is a book about intelligence and aging and the relationship of those aspects to personal happiness. The book is part sociology, part psychology, and part self-help. But if you read carefully, the book also offers important lessons in contemporary management.

The central theme of From Strength to Strength is how our intelligence changes over time and how individuals must change to make the best use of this changing intelligence. To make this point, Brooks cites Raymond Cattell, a British-American psychologist, who in 1971 suggested that there are two types of intelligence: “fluid intelligence” and “crystallized intelligence.” Cattell and Brooks define fluid intelligence as the ability to “reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems.” This is the kind of smarts and intelligence that is associated with young Nobel Prize winners and the tech titans of Silicon Valley. Crystallized intelligence is different. Brooks defines crystallized intelligence as the ability to use a stock of knowledge accumulated and learned in the past. Fluid intelligence is a characteristic of the young while crystallized intelligence is more closely associated with our aging process. At its best, fluid intelligence is “raw smarts” or what I might term “mental athleticism.” Crystallized intelligence at its best is what we recognize as “wisdom.”

Extrapolating from Brooks’ observations and analysis, one can conclude that complex organizations, both not-for-profit and for-profit, require both kinds of executive intelligence. Fluid intelligence generates new ideas, top-shelf innovation, and executive solutions to the most difficult business problems. But crystallized intelligence provides organizations with “the wisdom and experience of people who have seen a lot.” To further paraphrase Brooks, crystallized intelligence can teach the organization how not to make flagrant, self-defeating, and avoidable errors.

Reading Brooks and thinking about Cattell’s research led me to two observations. First, in our general corporate environment, including hospitals, we very much de-emphasize the value of crystallized intelligence. Just at the moment when many “older” executives are at the highest point of institutional wisdom, our modern corporate structure tends to react in two ways:

  • In general, we no longer give these so-called older executives jobs of responsibility and/or importance. These jobs are reserved for younger executives whose critical qualification is powerful levels of fluid intelligence.
  • Also, many corporate organizations demand what I would characterize as “early retirement.” This is especially true in many prominent American companies when long-tenured executives are required to retire in their late fifties or early sixties. If you place these retirements in the context of crystallized intelligence, then such retirements inevitably lead to a significant loss of human capital to our overall national economy. This includes the loss of long-term accumulated smarts, and most importantly, a loss of organizational wisdom.

Turning this discussion more specifically to hospital management leads to my second observation. Since Covid, the number of hospital CEO resignations has significantly increased when compared to previous years. Additionally, not only has CEO turnover increased but a number of important, influential, and highly capable CEOs—who previously might have been expected to work into their mid-sixties or, perhaps, even into their early seventies—have also decided to leave hospital leadership.

If we come back then to the central observations of Brooks and Cattell, we can see that hospital leadership and management, which is already challenged by so many external and difficult factors, is now losing critically required crystallized intelligence and wisdom.

Having said all this, it is still patently obvious that your organization requires the fluid intelligence of the next generation and the generation after that. That kind of intelligence is necessary and essential to solve today’s and tomorrow’s hardest healthcare problems. And, of course, to innovate and then to innovate some more.

But at the same time, your hospital or health system must also preserve a prominent place for older executives who possess the crystallized intelligence that assures your hospital will prioritize caring, thoughtfulness, and an essential level of managerial balance—all things that come along with executive wisdom.

From Strength to Strength signals a new way of looking at your executive team. This includes understanding that executives of differing tenures bring very different types of intelligence to the organization. And, it requires finding the proper balance between fluid and crystallized intelligence to give your hospital the very best opportunity to re-find its way to a much-needed new vision of hospital success.

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